We’re excited to announce a new podcast produced by The Salt Lake Tribune — “Trib Talk.”
Readers may recognize the name, which previously referred to a series of live video chats hosted by then-reporter and now-Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce. Like the original “Trib Talk,” the new podcast will feature Tribune reporters and invited guests discussing the latest news and diving into topics that affect Utahns.
The first episode, launched Wednesday, focuses on a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. Reporter Benjamin Wood moderates the discussion, which includes government reporter Taylor W. Anderson and Tribune editorial writer Michelle Quist.
A transcription of their conversation is included below, with links to previous news coverage.
Benjamin Wood (education reporter): With nearly 200,000 signatures, a campaign to legalize medial marijuana in Utah appears to have secured a place on the November ballot.
Polling consistently shows broad support for legalization among Utahns. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently signaled its opposition to the initiative, setting up a showdown between Utah voters and the state’s predominant faith.
From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is Trib Talk.
I’m Benjamin Wood joined today by government reporter Taylor W. Anderson and editorial writer Michelle Quist.
Taylor, yesterday — sorry, Monday — was the signature deadline for these ballot initiatives. We saw a lot of groups declaring victory. When will we know, for sure, when these different initiatives have made it onto the ballot?
Taylor W. Anderson (government reporter): We’re told in the next couple weeks. I guess the county clerks have to go through these signatures and verify whether they were actual registered voters in the district. Whether they’re legitimate from registered voters. They’ve already been certified in, like, over 20 of the counties so there’s only a few left to make sure that they got the 26 of 29 Senate districts. And so it shouldn’t be too long. And the campaign says that they feel pretty confident that they have enough. They handed in over 200,000 signatures.
Wood: Should we doubt that number at all, or does it look like they will be on the ballot in November?
Anderson: It’s looking really good for the campaign for sure.
Wood: Now Michelle, the LDS Church recently put out a statement voicing their support for another statement by the [Utah] Medical Association opposing the initiative.
Michelle Quist (editorial writer): Right.
Wood: Our polling has shown a lot of support for medical marijuana legalization. What kind of effect do you think the LDS Church’s opposition has on this ballot initiative?
Quist: Well, and it’s a presumed opposition. Again, they’ve said that they don’t have an official statement, yet the Utah Medical Association had a statement against the initiative and the church said “That’s a great statement.” It’s just kind of, it was a nonstatement-statement. I think it would have a big effect here in Utah on if the petition, if the initiative, succeeds. But the numbers are so heavy in support right now that I don’t think it will make the difference.
Wood: Yeah, our poll in January [had] 76 percent in support, and then among Republicans 64 percent in support. That would seem like a healthy buffer, but then again the LDS Church is a powerful figure.
Quist: And it is. And of course what members of the church are thinking of is the Word of Wisdom, this diet code that we’ve been asked to follow. But the Word of Wisdom doesn’t cover medicinal uses of things. In other states that have already legalized medical marijuana, the church is fine with its members using it under a doctor’s orders. So it’s hard for the church to say “Yes, members, you can use it in Colorado but no, members, you can’t use it in Utah because of the legalization of the states.” The cat’s kind of already out of the bag.
Wood: Sure. I want to read from the church’s statement. They wrote “We respect the wise counsel of the medical doctors of Utah. The public interest is best served when all new drugs designed to relieve suffering and illness and the procedures by which they are made available to the public undergo the scrutiny of medical scientists and official approval bodies.”
[Do] either of you want to put that into political language for me?
We commend the Utah Medical Association for its
Anderson: I’m not really sure why we’re waiting for something more from the church, because I read through this this morning and they commended the UMA for the statement. And they said that they commended them for cautioning that the initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities. So they did go straight to the initiative and say that what the doctors, or what this doctors’ group, was saying, that they supported that. Both that statement and the LDS Church’s statement specifically mention the initiative. I don’t know where exactly we’re getting the impression that they’re going to come out with another one. Michelle, do you think they’re going to do that?
Quist: No. I think their nonstatement is their statement. And I think because of their precarious situation of having it legalized in other states, they can’t come out against something that they allow — I mean I guess they could, they can do whatever they want. But the cat’s already out of the bag, I know I already said that.
Anderson: The statement also followed — I know Fox 13 reported that the church had met at least one time with members of the campaign. So they were having discussions about what the church’s statement was going to be or wasn’t going to be, whether it was going to weigh in on this. And then they issued this, which it’s also fascinating to watch the chain of this.
The LDS Church pointed to the UMA statement, and the UMA statement pointed to the governor’s statement, and then also yesterday the psychiatric association pointed back to the UMA statement and said “We like the UMA statement.” There’s a chain that you have to follow and it’s all kind of leading to different people and not just saying we don’t or we do support the initiative. So it’s kind of fascinating.
Quist: And the UMA statement, a few things about it, it represents what the board of the UMA feels, not what all of its members feel. We’ve heard from doctors who say “I’m a member of the UMA but I don’t support that statement.” And two, the primary focus of the statement has this idea that medicinal marijuana is going to lead to recreational marijuana use. And there’s no proof for that yet. There’s no data for that. Medicinal marijuana is not a kid smoking on the corner, it just isn’t.
Wood: Well, speaking of boards weighing in, the Tribune’s editorial board took some time on this over the weekend. How would you describe — and I know you’re not a hive mind — but how would you describe the editorial board’s stance responding to the governor’s claim of slippery-slope-type claims, the UMA’s health and safety claims?
Quist: Yeah, it’s overwrought. Their claims that it’s going to lead to recreational use and there’s going to be no checks and balances on it, it is a fear tactic. They’re trying to scaremonger conservative people who are worried about drug use. There’s just a lot of sick people in pain that this could really help and it’s better than opioids. That’s one of the focuses of the editorial board, is that we have an opioid crisis and this could help that.
Wood: Taylor, looking to Colorado and Nevada, our two neighbor states that have both recreation and medical marijuana, what has happened there that might suggest a road map for Utah?
Anderson: Right, so specifically to will this lead to recreational, you do look at the states that did go recreation — which means that an adult 21 and up can whenever they want go and buy some marijuana and use it how they feel fit — these states actually historically did start with medical marijuana.
Now part of that you have to look at, it’s hard to say just looking at a map, is this just the whole national debate that is moving this direction? Medical marijuana used to be a ridiculous thought a couple decades ago and now we’re already at adult use, recreational use. Nevada legalized it in 2000, medical marijuana, in 2016 they legalized recreational. Colorado, 2001 they went medical, 2012 they were the first state to go recreational. Oregon the same thing, California, so historically actually yes, the states that have started with medical have since switched to recreational.
Wood: And then the broader health impacts, are they seeing — health and economic impacts, what are they seeing in those states?
Anderson: I can’t say for sure about the health, I haven’t studied that. I can speak specifically to Oregon. It was slow to come on where they were actually paying for their, they were beefing up their police force, they were doing educational efforts to make sure that teens weren’t going to use this. And then once the stores opened up and people started using it was pretty quick, they started getting a lot of tax revenue that started paying for schools, paying for more police and paying for these other things.
Colorado has had a huge boon from this, as all of the recreational states have. We’re talking about medical though, so we’ll see what the economic impact would be.
Wood: This chain of statements seemed timed for the signature stage ending and we’re now entering this new phase of these ballot initiatives. What does that look like moving forward, is this the new era of this election season that we’re in?
Quist: Yeah, it’s marketing. Now the campaigns are going to start, vote for it or don’t vote for it. And I think the opposition is so far behind already that that’s going to have to be a huge marketing campaign to make that up.
Wood: The opposition side.
Anderson: But there also was, I mean, the campaign didn’t really start. This is the time that we really jump on the treadmill and we’re in campaign season now. It would have been premature if the governor had been talking about this, one, before the Legislature was passing those two bills and two, before the campaign actually handed in enough signatures to potentially qualify for the ballot.
So this is actually a natural time and when we talk about the really favorable polling, there had been no opposition, it had been people saying “Look, there are people out there who could really use this product” but nobody was saying “Let’s look at the other side of this.”
We’re going to get these, we’ve got the statement from the UMA, from the church now sort of, from the governor. We’re going to have police weigh in, possibly teachers. We’ll have to see what the final opposition campaign, if that’s what you call it, it probably won’t be a lot of money but there will be people in public positions weighing in on this for sure.
Quist: And they do have the benefit of being able to say “The Legislature legalized medical marijuana.” And they can legitimately say that, they can make that claim. But some voters will know and some voters won’t know that they only legalized it for terminally ill patients. But if you hear “they already legalized medical marijuana” you might think that the initiative isn’t necessary.
Wood: I’m glad you brought that up — Utah does have some forms of medical marijuana. How would that differ from what the ballot initiative is proposing?
Anderson: So Utah went with a monopolized, state-run [system], similar to the DABC but there wouldn’t be a bunch of different marijuana outlets throughout the state. There would be one, run by the Department of Agriculture and Food. They would be in charge, they’re writing rules this week [and] actually meeting for the first time tomorrow, about how they’re actually going to do this and get the product to anybody who is approved to use marijuana.
When you talk about states that have legalized medical marijuana you have to look at the approved, the qualifying, conditions. Which sickness are we trying to treat with this? And the two laws, the right-to-try law that Rep. Brad Daw sponsored and passed through the Legislature, it’s for terminal illness. So if your doctor expects you’ll be dead within six months, then they can choose to recommend that you try this product if you’d like to.
When you look at the initiative, it’s much more broad. And the one that is really broad is “chronic pain.” In states that have legalized medical marijuana, this is kind of where the crux of the debate [is]. Do we limit it to just cancer, epilepsy, other ailments that are pretty severe, or do we allow somebody who says “I have back pain, I would rather not try opioids that I might get addicted to. I’d try something else including marijuana to treat my chronic pain”? That’s on the initiative’s list of qualifying conditions, it’s not in the new law that the governor signed recently.
Wood: Do the initiative organizers have any numbers on the potential patients that would be included in that category?
Anderson: I haven’t heard any.
Quist: I haven’t seen one.
Wood: Taylor, with the initiative, how will the production and distribution of medical marijuana be handled if it’s passed?
Anderson: Yeah, that’s another big difference between the bills that the Legislature just passed and the initiative. This would be — it would allow private dispensaries. People could apply to the state for a license to operate a dispensary. It’s not the state running this like the new laws will operate one dispensary. This will be up to 15 cultivators, private growers, 15 throughout the state, and we’re going to reassess, if it passes, it would be reassessed by 2022 for potentially more than just those 15 growers.
But private growers, private dispensaries. And also there’s another provision too. If there’s no dispensary within 100 miles of a patient’s house they can grow their own in their home or designate a caregiver to do so for them.
Wood: So potentially in rural areas, patients growing their own medical marijuana for their own consumption.
Anderson: That’s right, yeah.
Wood: Is that a sticking point for opponents?
Anderson: Yeah, you hear a lot about that, access to whole plant material. Often in other states you have concerns over, is this going to create a safety issue? If somebody knows that there’s marijuana being grown in this house, is that person who is growing, that patient or caregiver, at risk for some nefarious behavior, someone coming in and stealing that plant or doing whatever? But that is something we’ll probably hear more about as the campaign moves forward.
Wood: Who are the people and groups behind the initiative and why did they choose the initiative route? It’s not the easiest thing to do.
Anderson: Yeah, we got here, it was interesting, a couple years ago this almost passed out of the Legislature. A bill that was very similar to this initiative, it was led by Sen. Mark Madsen. He’s kind of a libertarian-minded former lawmaker, he left after this passed the Senate and failed in the House.
Again, libertarian-minded former senator and now the initiative is being supported by a couple different groups. One, including the Libertas Institute, it’s a libertarian-minded organization. Nationally, libertarians favor more relaxed drug policies. A frequent claim is that the drug war has not succeeded, it’s been a waste of money, and so they go for more relaxed policies including marijuana legalization. Libertas is helping in the background, there’s also a coalition called the Utah Patients Coalition, that’s the name of the group that is running the initiative because they also focus on the people that they say this would help — patients who either don’t want to try some prescription medication, opioids or other, and want something else, access to marijuana to help treat their conditions.
So Utah Patients Coalition, Libertas Institute, and TRUCE Utah is another one, it’s a nonprofit, Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education. Those are the three main groups that are actually public and behind this in Utah. They’ve got support from a couple national groups too, one being the Marijuana Policy Project, they advocate for expanding marijuana legalization nationwide so they’re a heavy financial donor for this.
Wood: Has the money been mostly in-state or out-of-state?
Anderson: There’s a lot of small-dollar donors from in-state and a lot of big-ticket, six-figure — five-figure I should say — donations from out-of-state. The Marijuana Policy Project has given a couple of different $5, $25, $10,000 donations. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is another interesting donor, they actually often contribute financially to different cannabis legalization drives in different states. They gave a $50,000 check, they’re based out of California. So a lot of national money and some smaller local money.
Wood: Michelle, let’s circle a little bit back to the LDS Church’s statement. You mentioned the Word of Wisdom and kind of the weighing act that practicing Mormons would have to do. Our polling suggests that many of them are supportive of medical marijuana. I’m curious if you might be comfortable speculating, what’s the political calculus for a practicing Mormon who is supportive and yet is hearing this guidance from their leadership?
Quist: I think, especially here in Utah, that members are able to hear guidance and make their own decision as to how and what they think. Especially when the church is reticent to give an actual statement. If the church hones out their statement a little better and it’s obvious that they oppose it, then it’s going to give some members pause. But again, this medicinal use justification for what they’re using overcomes the discomfort of using something.
I mean, the Word of Wisdom says that members shouldn’t drink tea, a black leaf tea. And I can count to 10 women that I know who drink tea when they’re pregnant for headaches or things like that — I did so that I didn’t have to take Excedrin or whatever it is. So this medicinal use trumps, it trumps the Word of Wisdom when you’re using it for that reason.
Wood: If the support stays in this 60 to 70 percent range, would you expect the church to take a harder position? Something more direct?
Quist: I don’t think so. Again, I think they’re coming up against this fact that members in other states can use it, so it’s hard to say to members in this state that it might really help, you can’t use it because you happen to live in Utah.
Wood: We should mention this isn’t the only ballot initiative. Taylor, after Monday’s signature deadline, what does the ballot look like currently?
Anderson: We’ve got the — and again we still have to wait for some of these things to be verified by the county clerks — the only two that didn’t make it were the Our Schools Now, which would raise education funding, because there was a compromise at the Legislature. And the other is Keep My Voice, which is kind of the anti-Count My Vote, the election law that allows candidates to get to the primary ballot either through convention or by collecting signatures. Keep My Voice would revert to just the caucus-convention system as the only route to the ballot and so that didn’t go anywhere. Our Schools Now didn’t either.
The Legislature did expand Medicaid but the campaign is still moving ahead with their —
Quist: They want the full expansion.
Wood: Of the four that appear positioned for November, what kind of support levels are we seeing for them? Are we seeing 60 to 70 percent like medical marijuana?
Anderson: They have support. The one that is kind of somewhat struggling is Better Boundaries. Voters like the sound of it but they don’t really understand how, one, it will actually be any different than the current process and two, there’s some skepticism about will it actually be independent. How do you get onto this commission that is going to be redrawing the boundaries? They’re political appointees so is it actually going to be independent? I talked to a few different voters that, they were a little cynical on that point. But overall these are all actually polling favorably. They’ve got more support than opposition.
Wood: For those four, assuming they do get on the ballot, what does the next six months look like?
Quist: Marketing. Talking about it, getting people to talk about it, being on social media and I think it may be a quieter summer than it will be a fall. It’s always an on-your-mind kind of thing, ballots are in November so they’re going to want to hit it strong October and November I think.
Anderson: And speaking from, I covered, initiatives are much more commonplace in places like Oregon. This is kind of a new, somewhat untreaded territory for Utah where we’ve got this many different campaigns that are joining some pretty high-profile elections that we already had — U.S. Senate and the legislative races that are already going on. These are just going to add to the cacophony of elections ads and campaigning that people have already endured. It’s basically a nonstop campaign cycle anymore.
Quist: And this time, I think it’s the first time that we’ve had four on one ballot. It might get confusing or overwhelming or it might be exactly what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a voice, they’re tired of waiting for the Legislature to do what they’ve been asking and so it will be interesting to see what happens because there are so many. The initiative process is difficult, to get the signatures from 26 counties as opposed to just Salt Lake, it’s a difficult process. The Legislature has, on purpose, made it a difficult process so that they could be the lawmakers and not the people. It will be interesting to see what the citizens do.
Wood: The three of us have discussed this before on our written Slack chats. I’m curious with this many issues, does that produce a voter fatigue or does more issues bring more eyeballs to the ballot?
Quist: I think it’s overwhelming. I think it’s easier to just say “ugh, no, no, no, no.”
Anderson: “No” is considered the default. If a voter doesn’t fully grasp something, why would they change it?
Wood: Well excellent, Michelle Quist, editorial writer, and Taylor Anderson, government reporter, thank you both for joining us today.
Quist: Thanks, good to be here.
Wood: We’ll have more on this, and all the other ballot initiatives, at sltrib.com.
Trib Talk is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.
We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.